By Heriberto Escamilla, Ph.D.
In the early hours of September 16th 1810, a sixty-year old priest agonized over the choices before him. His close friend Ignacio Allende had just informed him that the hated gachupines had discovered the criollo plot to establish an independent Mexico and were on their way to arrest him. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the former dean of the College of San Nicolas at Valladolid in Michoacan (now Morelia) was a truly compassionate cleric who sought to empower the Meztizo and Indigenous masses. Perhaps he foresaw the ten years of bloodshed that a military confrontation with the better-equipped Spaniards would bring, or maybe the overwhelming weight of oppression blinded him to any other option. In any event the decision for rebellion must have been painful, one that came after considerable prayer, mediation and anguish.
Even with Allende and an army of admirers at his side, Hidalgo made the lonely walk to the church tower, released a cry that shook the valleys and mountains of Mexico, Mexicanos, Viva Mexico. With the Virgen de Guadalupe leading them, the meztizos, the indigenous, the poor people of Mexico who had stoically accepted the yoke of slavery for three hundred years responded, taking up sticks, stones and machetes. Thousands of lives later, the Spanish galleons, like the serpent raft that carried the great God Quetzalcoatl, were swallowed by the eastern horizon.
The people of Mexico were not the only ones to suffer hunger pangs for freedom. Between 1775 and 1783, Thomas Jefferson and the Americanos to the north threw off the thorny Crown of the British monarchy. To the south Jose Gervasio Artigas, Jose de San Martin, Bernardo O’Higgins, Jose Antonio Paez and Simon de Bolivar were carving Europe’s South American empire into smaller autonomous countries, where people would be free to rule the course of their own lives.
Freedom is fragile, crushed by grips of greedy fists and deflated by the weight of hardened hearts. A generation after Hidalgo’s Grito de Dolores, a peasant president from the state of Oaxaca gave us another glimpse of truth, “Respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” “Respect for the rights of others is peace”. Perhaps this holds for freedom as well, something we never really enjoy until it is shared by all.
Fifty years after Juarez, the children of Chalcatzingo in the modern state of Morelos cried out once more, “Tierra y Libertad”. Emiliano Zapata, perhaps the most recognized of the Mexican freedom fighters reminded us of the sacred connection between the people, land and freedom.
And while authors such as Jack Weatherford in his book Indian Givers credit the concept of democracy, of group rule, and the of the wisdom of the circle to the indigenous people of the new world, the struggle for sovereignty was not limited to the American lands. Across the Atlantic waters, the common people of France refused to eat bread by itself; with their own cry for justice, had already stormed the Bastille looking for meat and butter. The fires of freedom spread quickly across desserts and grasslands alike, to the Middle East, Russia, and China.
Freedom for all is an unstable condition. Liberators all too often succumb to the seductive arms of power. Simply declaring it and killing people for independence does not ensure its endurance. Two hundred years after the Americans declared the United States to be “free” from British oppression, Marin Luther King sat at his kitchen table, alone with his God. According to David Garrow in Bearing the Cross, on the cold, dark night of January 27th, 1956, the troubled King heard a voice say, “Stand up for righteousness. “Stand up for Justice, Stand up for the Truth. And I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” Dr. King took up his cross, giving his life to truth and justice. And 2,000 miles away, Cesar, the son of Librado (interestingly enough meaning the freed one) and Juana Chavez was standing up to the oppressive farm owners of California’s central valley.
Even today, some struggle to understand why Iraqi “terrorists” don’t welcome America’s benevolent presence with open arms. We hear it everyday. Jews, Palestinians, Serbs and Sudanese, Christians and Moslems violently bathing in each other’s blood, grasping for their own piece of earth. Freedom is elusive, thriving only when shared.
So what does September 16th really mean and how should we celebrate? What is the “cause”, the struggle? What does it mean to be independent and more importantly, what can we as “common people” do?
Let us propose, at the risk of committing political suicide that the battle for freedom is never completely won. It’s an ongoing struggle that perhaps we need not take on, but we suggest that to be truly happy, to be completely fulfilled, one must at some point in life take a stand. Let us further propose that a country is never really free until its people are willing to stand for truth.
Finally, let us propose that the stand for freedom begins internally, like everything else; it begins with reflection and introspection. Yes, these men made the world a little better for you. But in addition to indulging in the freedom they secured, being with friends, eating, drinking and singing, honor them by taking a closer look at their lives. Let us appreciate not only what they did for us, but also how the struggle for freedom reflected their lives. We remember them most by emulating them; we promote freedom by trying to be a little more like them. Let us follow the examples of freedom fighters like Hidalgo, Zapata, King and Chavez, by naming and battling our own internal oppressors, first. What can you do today, not tomorrow, but now as these words settle into your consciousness that gives the world a little more truth, a little more freedom?
Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Mexico, was raised in Houston Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology-San Diego Campus.